ScotWars - Scottish Military History and Re-enactment
Battle of Newburn

In 1637, King Charles I and Archbishop Laud Endeavoured to force on Scotland the religious service of the Church of England. They created thirteen bishops in the Church of Scotland, and appointed a service-book to be read by the clergy: but when the Dean of St Giles, at Edinburgh, began to read the new liturgy, such a riot ensued that he and the bishop fled in fear. An order came from the King to enforce the prayers, with the aid of troops if necessary. The stubborn spirit of the Scots was now aroused. In 1638, ninety-five per cent of the nation had signed a document in every parish church, called the ‘National Covenant’, by which they bound themselves to keep their kingdom free from all interference in church matters. After this all Scots were known as ‘Covenanters’ to the English.

Charles marched north in 1639 with an army, and war seemed imminent, but after much talking on both sides, peace was declared, probably more due to their general unpreparedness and Charles’s usual shortage of money. This was known as the ‘Pacification of Berwick’. Afterwards it was obvious to everyone that war would come sooner or later, and both sides took measures accordingly.

The Scots began their preparations and rapidly collected stores, arms and horses. A number of 24 and 42 pounder guns were brought from Holland and the gun and shot forges were put into full operation. Sir Alexander Leslie, who fought as Field Marshal under Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, was given command of the army, while the commander of the artillery was Alexander Hamilton, whose invention of leather guns, did much to win the forthcoming battle.

At Newcastle, Lord Conway was appointed commander of 12, 000 foot and 3,000 horse, who were a very mutinous and discontented body. The rest of the English army lay at York, until the time should come to advance to the North.

The Scots moved first, crossing the river Tweed on 21st August, 1640, when, according to an old custom of the Scottish officers in the German wars, the colonels decided, by throwing dice on a drumhead, who should have the honour of leading the van and treading first on hostile ground. The lot fell to James, Earl of Montrose, the future marquis of gallant but unfortunate memory. All the troops wore the Lowland bonnet with a knot of blue ribbons above the left ear. The old song, ‘All the Blue Bonnets are Bound for the Border’ commemorates this. It has been recorded that it was four in the afternoon when the first regiment crossed the Tweed, but the bells of the English churches were heard chiming midnight before the rear-guard had crossed. The army comprised about 27,000 men, some being armed with bows and arrows, probably the last time they were used in warfare.

They divided the army into three bodies, keeping within sight, about ten miles from each other, during their march through Northumberland. After little opposition they arrived at Eachwick on the evening of the 26th August. It was hot summer weather and the troops soon drank all the wells dry. All the local cattle were commandeered for the army, but were scrupulously paid for.

From there, next day, Leslie sent his drum major and a trumpeter to Newcastle with letters asking for permission to pass through the town. Outside the walls the trumpeter sounded ‘most sweetly thrice’, while the drummer cast out a white flag of silk. Sir Jacob Astley, the Governor, asked him who he was. After being told of their mission Astley, without opening their letters, told them to be gone.

Back at Eachwick, Leslie realized it would be costly, if not impossible to storm Newcastle with its garrison of 15, 000 men: but once across the Tyne he could take the town in the rear, where it was virtually defenceless. Therefore on the evening of the 27th August, 1640, the Scottish army was found encamped upon Heddon Law. Great fires were made in and about their camp, the ground being open moorland with outcrops of coal being plentiful on the spot, so that in the darkness the army seemed to be very large. The Scots invited the country people to come into their camp and made them welcome with expressions of great love, saying that they came to harm no one.

An English regiment had been stationed at Newburn for some time to guard the ford, but on the approach of the Scots, it fell back across the river. A few days before this. Astley had sent out Lloyd, his chief engineer, to make outer defence works at Stella Haugh, and the regiment on the spot began constructing them. There were two separate entrenchments. On a plan of Stella dated 1779, the ground below Hedgefield Church is named the ‘Forts’ and it was near here that a small fortification was placed to guard the two lesser used fords, while a larger entrenchment was constructed opposite the two principal fords further west.

Late on the 27th August, Conway drew out forces from the garrison of Newcastle. The cavalry, 1,500 strong, and 3, 000 infantry marched to Stella, leaving on the way a covering party of foot who encamped in the fields below Whickham Church. This party was to guard against any retreat of the army to Newcastle. On his arrival at Stella, Lord Conway established his headquarters in Stella Hall, while the rest of the army soon completed the two forts on the Haugh. Each fort was garrisoned by four guns and four hundred musketeers. The English troops were not impressed by their defences, for to quote a gloomy soldier’s letter, ‘Their army appeared marching on the hills above the ford when we were drawing into our miserable works in the valley, where we lay so exposed’.

During the night, Leslie had not been idle. His troops were moved to their battle positions, the musketeers being scattered throughout the cottages and hedges of Newburn, while the wooded slopes above the village enabled him to position his batteries without being seen. One battery of heavy guns was situated in front of the church, and another upon the sentinel hill of the village at the east end of Newburn where the sand quarry is now. Scattered among the rushes on the riverbank were dozens of lighter guns, and some were even hoisted to the top of the church tower. These lighter ‘Swedish’ pieces were made of a tin bore, with leather hides strapped around them, and being very light they were easily transportable. They were only good for ten or twelve discharges, but using grape-shot they were murderous at short range. The Scottish baggage train was left under the guard of one regiment at Heddon.

Newburn, a place of note before the Norman Conquest, is the first fordable spot on the Tyne above Newcastle. At the time of the battle the river wound among flat meadows which lay between steep banks for a distance of about half a mile, and which were covered in scrub and gorse bushes. There were four fords here, and a child could cross before the river was dredged. The Newburn Ford, where the bridge is now, was connected to the second one, the Riding Ford. A little further to the east was the Kelso (Kelshy) Ford, a well known ford on the route of the old drove road from Scotland to the south. The Romans are said to have paved the bed of the river here to improve its passage. A quantity of black oak was found there in the last century, evidently belonging to the frame to keep the stones in place. The ford nearest to Stella was named Crummel, an old English name meaning winding or crooked stream: as this was the sharp bend of the river it is self-explanatory. After the visit of Cromwell in later years it was assumed that the name referred to him and so it was generally called the Cromwell Ford.

To the east of the Haughs was Stella Hall, an Elizabethan mansion, the army Headquarters. Some years ago a thatched cottage stood nearby, opposite to the Catholic Church, in which, tradition states, the royalist officers spent the night before the battle. The cottage, which was an inn, was probably used as an officers’ mess. It contained one large room and two smaller ones. We can imagine what a merry night of hard drinking there was the night before the battle, the last carousal many of these gay cavaliers would have on this earth. Later it was given the name ‘Cromwell’s Cottage through it probably having served the same purpose as an officers’ mess during the times when the Protector’s army was encamped on Stella Haughs, on his travels to and from Scotland.

On Wednesday, 26th August, 1640, Lord Conway had sent a messenger to the King, then at York with the rest of the army asking for instructions. The Earl of Strafford prepared a reply to be immediate sent back to him. John Rushworth, the famous author, being newly arrived from London and hearing of the letter, took the opportunity to ride to Newcastle with the messenger. When they arrived there on the morning of Friday, 28th August, they were informed that Conway had gone to the main army near to Newburn. They immediately went there and found the General and the field officers at a council of war in Stella Hall, half a mile distant from the army, and they delivered the letter there accordingly.

The order to Conway were quite sharp and explicit, for he was told that if the Scots tried to cross the Tyne he had to fight them with all means at his disposal. With these direct orders before him, Conway was hardly likely to shirk a battle, but any decision was taken of his hands by events beside the fords. As the council of war was debating the course of action to be taken, Lord George Goring came into the room and said that the Lt. General of the army ‘needed not to have sent order to bid them to fight, whatever came of it, for the enemy had begun the work out of their own hands’.

All through the morning of the 28th, the two armies had watched the other in silence across the river. Just after midday, when the tide was beginning to ebb, Leslie sent a trumpeter across to Conway to assure him that he came without hostile intent, desirous only to approach the King with a petition. He therefore requested that he might pass. Conway replied that he would allow a few to come over with their petition, but he was not empowered to let the whole army across. With this answer the trumpeter returned to Newburn accompanied by the jeers and ribald remarks of the English troops.

Sometime about one o’clock in the afternoon, a Scottish officer, well mounted and wearing a black feather in this hat, came out from one of the thatched cottages in Newburn and rode his horse into the river. While his horse was drinking, an English sentry, perceiving that he seemed to be taking stock of their positions, shot him down with a single musket shot. It was either a tremendous fluke or a jolly good shot by this unknown marksman, considering the inaccuracy of the old smooth bore muskets, but it was the first shot fired in the battle.

Apart from this shot, not a gun had been fired. The water was beginning to get lower and Leslie called up a body of three hundred horses and ordered them to cross the river. The English gunners, at this point, were really on their mettle, and their fire from the forts proved devastating, forcing the Scots to retire. Leslie at once unmasked his batteries, which had so far been unobserved, and poured a hot return fire into the English entrenchments. According to one source, the whole riverbank seemed to be ablaze. For some time (some authorities say for about three hours) the artillery duel was maintained between the guns on both sides of the river. The English gunners were striving to put out of action the Scottish guns firing from Newburn Church Tower. The Scots’ fire badly damaged the larger of the two English forts, the shots plunging into the low-lying position. Colonel Lunsford, who was in command of this fort, restrained his men with great difficulty and kept them at their posts. We must remember that these were raw troops who had not been under fire before. Soon after this, a shot fell into the works, killing about twenty men, some of the officers. Once again, Lunsford had difficulty in restraining the men who were complaining bitterly that they had been on duty all night and that none of the troops at Newcastle had been sent to relieve them, when a second shot dropped into the fort completely demoralizing them. They deserted the work en masse casting away their arms, abandoning the cannon and blowing up the powder in the fort.

Their flight opened up the ford to the Scots. Leslie therefore called up a small body of cavalry and sent them across to reconnoitre the remaining works. At this point, the English cavalry came into action. They had so far remained out of gunshot on Stella Haugh. They were the cream of the English army led by Lord Wilmot, a very capable cavalry commander, whose day was to come in the Civil Wars. As they had passed through the streets of Newcastle on the preceding day, all of these wild spirits were described as having ridden in wild disorder, brandishing their swords, waving their plumed beavers, drinking at every other door to the health of the King, swearing they would fight to the last gasp, and each to exterminate at least a dozen Scots.

In no way discouraged by the flight of their musketeers, whom they taunted as the scum of London, they mad a sortie to recover the cannon and arms which the infantry had abandoned. The approach of the Scottish horse, however, diverted them from that duty, and with a flourish of cavalry trumpets they charged the enemy with such fury that the Scots were forced to retire until their guns, covering the retreat, enabled them to reform and await reinforcements.

Meanwhile at the east end of the position, the remaining earthwork had been knocked out of action. After the fall of the larger earthwork, Leslie had moved his heavy guns to reinforce the battery on the hill to the cast of Newburn. They rapidly completed the demolition of the fort and removed the last resistance of the English artillery.

It was about four in the afternoon, and low tide, when Leslie ordered a general advance. In the final attack, he sent over two regiments consisting altogether of fifteen hundred men. Wilmot set himself to oppose them: closing up in twelve squadrons in a narrow place between two thick hedges they made a furious charge upon the Scottish Life Guards. Despite all their valour, the troopers began to recoil on each other. Being pressed forward by the rear files, they were forced back to the front and a dreadful struggle with sword and pistol ensued. All being gentlemen, no one would yield an inch. Wilmot cut down one or two of the enemy. Sir Henry Vane had his horse wounded under him and drew off with but six or seven of his troop, was taken, and the bearer, Cornet Porter, was killed by a pistol shot, while many Scots were shot, run through, or trodden down beneath the heaving mass of horsemen.

By now ten thousand Scottish infantry were beginning to wade across the Tyne. Most of the English foot now fled without supporting the horse, retreating up Stella Banks to the Old Hexham Road, and from there to Blaydon, Swalwell and Newcastle.

On receiving a flank fire from a thousand musketeers, the English horse gave way, but instead of retreating along the Haugh on the heels of their infantry, they continued along to the west of the Haugh were Wilmot rallied his men together with some infantry stragglers on some wooded high ground. An ambush was laid for the pursuing Scots, but was spoilt by the rashness of some musketeers. There was a short sharp fight in which Wiulmot, Sir John Digby and various other officers were taken prisoner. In Sir John’s life story it was said that he was captured through the death of his gallant horse ‘Sylverside’, who had carried him all day safely through battle. All of the prisoners were well treated by their captors and later released.

Had Leslie desired, the disorganized rout could be been cut to pieces. Stringent orders, however, had been issued to capture, but not to kill the fugitives. So towards nightfall, the broken remnants of the foot, with two rescued guns, reached Newcastle. The horse routed and in disorder, galloped to Durham. That night the whole Scottish army camped in the fields and cottages of Ryton and after giving thanks for their victory they stood to their arms all night.

As the foot retreated through Swalwell and Whickham, they picked up the party who had encamped in the church fields. This force retreated in such haste they did not bother to dismantle their encampment, but fired their tents and departed. This in turn set fire to a seam of coal which is said to have burnt continuously for thirty years. In the building operations, carried on here in recent years, the burnt ashes of this seam have been traced for quite some distance. Old army leather water bottles are supposed to have been found in the Coaly Well itself before it was filled in.

At midnight after the battle Lord Conway decided to retreat from Newcastle to Durham, the retirement taking place at five in the morning of Saturday 29th August, 1640.

The parsons of Ryton and Whickham rifled their own houses and fled. At Whickham, the parson left only a few playbooks and doubtful pamphlets in his house with one old cloak. An old woman was the only living Christian left in the town.

The Scots immediately occupied Newcastle, but they left a detachment at Stella, both as a guard and a detail to clean up the battlefield, gathering up the arms thrown away by the English troops. The next task was to bury the dead. Casualties were not heavy considering that about twenty-five thousand men had been involved. Most of the English dead were scattered around the earthworks: according to the Scots there were about sixty of them, but the Scots tended to play down the amount of casualties in line with their policies. Their own dead must have been much greater, as an attacking force usually suffer approximately three times more casualties than the defence: about three hundred dead from both sides would be a reasonable estimate.

The dead were carried across the river and buried on the site of Leslie’s eastern battery. In the closing years of the last century the site was worked as a sand quarry by a firm named Kirton, and from the start the bones of the battle dead were turned up in large quantities from just under the turf. Among the bones of humans were also the bones of the old warriors’ horses. Cannon and musket balls were also found, many of these being carried away by the villagers as mementoes. Bourn mentions a cannon ball which was found embedded in a beam at Newburn in 1893. Another cannon ball is on display inside Stella Power Station after having been dredged out of the Tyne some years ago. Unfortunately, Newburn Parish Registers do not commence until 1658, so that there is no record there of the dead. The only mention in the Ryton Registers of the Scottish army is in October, 1641, when the death of an illegitimate son of Jane Kirkhouse and a Scottish soldier is recorded.

The Scots continued to occupy the North for a year, and during this time the Bishopric had to pay them £350 per day. Before this heavy tax the people fled, so that not one house in ten was occupied and when the Scots withdrew their forces in 1641, the Bishopric was saddled with the payment of £25,000.

Return to Top

©2007-2011 ScotWars All Rights Reserved. [Disclaimer]
Site designed & compiled by....
Rab Taylor
Webmaster of PUBCAT  RomanScotland